James Cagney

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

BONUS FEATURE – JOHN GARFIELD

1913-1952

 

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John Garfield was a tough guy with a weak heart. Both qualities were a consequence of his childhood. A heavy dose of scarlet fever left Garfield with the damaged heart. His impoverished childhood meant he ran wild on the streets of New York. He even sampled the life of a hobo. The opening sentence of the novella The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain is one of the best ever; ‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon.’ After that the beginning of the movie was destined to be an anti-climax, and it would have been except that it was authentic tough guy John Garfield falling off the back of the truck.   The novella by Cain was sexy and a little twisted. The movie was censored by the Motion Picture Production Code but the bureaucrats could do nothing about the lusty expectation in the eyes of Garfield and the open mouth simper of Lana Turner. The movie was a big hit. Audiences liked Turner and Garfield.   If Turner was sexy and beautiful, the appeal of Garfield was more complicated.

 

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John Garfield was an actor rated by both the critics and his peers. He had a naturalistic style that anticipated Brando and an intensity that could be compared to Cagney. Garfield can be described as the link between the two actors and the different acting traditions. Garfield, like Cagney, was a physical actor.  In his performances he holds a cigarette and a telephone as if they are weapons. When he turns the pages of a newspaper, he concentrates in a way that insists we think about the information he is absorbing. There are many fabulous moments in his career and more than a few in his greatest movie, the best ever film noir Force Of Evil. At one point in Force Of Evil, Garfield walks through a corridor. He is a lawyer, and running is not permissible. To let us know that he is determined, Garfield tilts his shoulder so that it is at an angle to the floor and he walks in a line that is not quite straight.   The gesture is an exaggerated way of communicating determination but it is also audacious and it succeeds.

Actors who shared a similar background to Garfield could provide physical authenticity but struggled with subtle dialogue.   John Garfield also had a good ear. Nothing in his career was as challenging as the dialogue in Force Of Evil.  In subsequent interviews the director Abraham Polonsky claimed that the dialogue in the film was not the blank verse the critics assumed.  According to Polonsky, he did nothing more than sprinkle some repetition and add poetical rhythm.   Whatever we are listening to, Garfield is adept.  He provides a lyrical lilt and adds tension to the pauses.

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His heart, and perhaps his background, caused the death of the actor in 1952.  John Garfield was 39 years old.  In the previous year he made his last film He Ran All The Way.  Weariness, which may have had something to do with what was happening in his life, informed a convincing performance. Garfield played Nick Robey an amoral criminal who is without pity for his victims. But, because of the acting by Garfield, we understand that the criminal is a wounded animal. Nick Robey, like many others, never had a chance.   Critics and fellow actors understood the skill of Garfield. The rest of us approved of him because he appeared to be like the people we knew, an ordinary man, cocky but shy, arrogant but insecure, loud but wary, innocent but tricky and cunning. In the 40s there was no one like Garfield and that still applied when his movies appeared on British TV many years later.

Not all the movies that John Garfield made were great but that has something to do with him having to do what he was told by Hollywood.   Before the end of his career he co-founded the independent production company The Enterprise Studio. The nine films made by the studio are a mixed bunch.   They include Westerns, comedies and romantic dramas.  None are awful but three are important.  Caught is a fine film noir from the great director Max Ophuls, and Body And Soul and Force Of Evil are the two classics.  These two were made because of the independence and single-mindedness of The Enterprise Studio. The later blacklisted Abraham Polonsky wrote the scripts for both films and he directed Force Of Evil.

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For all of his life Polonsky believed that capitalism was a flawed economic and social system. The movies, though, are not tainted by pedestrian dialectic. Polonsky liked to suggest rather than preach.   Right wing cynics assumed that he nailed the flaws in human nature. Left wing rebels secretly waved the flag under their cinema seat.  In both of the Polonsky films Garfield plays a man who has ambition, someone who wants money and what and whom it buys. He is always, though, more than mere gluttony and appetites. Fear feeds his ambition.  The moments of conscience are sparse but believable.

In a better world it would have been different. Garfield would have lived until he was old, Polonsky would not have been blacklisted, and more great films from the two men would have followed. Instead of being restricted to being a movie icon of the 40s, Garfield would have accepted the offer of the part of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Because of his involvement with The Enterprise Studio, Garfield said no, and Brando took the role.  Marlon was so good people looked to the future rather than remember the past. The memory and contribution of John Garfield was obscured by the hard-hitting realism of Brando and the daring of Tennessee Williams.  It could have been different. Brando would have arrived whatever Garfield had done. If Garfield had claimed the part of Kowalski, the two men might have shaped and shared the decade and what followed.

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It did not happen. Garfield stayed in Hollywood and made two classic movies but was persecuted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His wife had been a member of the Communist Party.   The accepted opinion is that Garfield was a left leaning liberal.  In his testimony to the House Committee he condemned Communism.  He proclaimed himself to be a patriot and a Democrat.  During the Second World War he made a few patriotic flag wavers, again they included a couple of classics, Air Force and Destination Tokyo.  In Hollywood there were creative talents who were committed to Marxist ideology.  The House Committee wanted names of what they regarded as fellow conspirators. There was no conspiracy just a few people exchanging ideas and theory but the lack of a sinister plot was no deterrent to the members of the Committee.   Left wing writers and directors were put under pressure to reveal names, and the majority buckled. John Garfield had less reason than others to resist. He was asked to identify people who had political opinions with which he disagreed. Resist, though, he did. John Garfield had his tough guy ethics, the code of the street and his social class. He refused to give names. When he had to do something other than pretend to be a hero, John Garfield delivered.   His two children both became actors.  His inspiration reached beyond the movie screen and into an admiring family.

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The authenticity of John Garfield was a key factor in his success as a movie actor yet the truth is he had more than that.   He was handsome from certain angles but ordinary in others. He convinced both as a lover and warrior. His politics were inspired by decency rather than theory. The performances of Garfield remind an audience that he has not forgotten what it is like to suffer and be powerless. He is always a dominant personality but in many of his films he qualifies as the victim. If his characters become rich, they have to battle and take knocks. He was persuasive as a boxer but also as a gangster with an aching heart. And he also held his own against magnetic female stars such as Lana Turner, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

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Apart from the Polonsky duo there are two other films where Garfield and his sense of what capricious life means for ordinary people puts him in a special class. These are The Sea Wolf and They Made Me A Criminal. The latter is a piece of tosh.  The happy ending is unbelievable yet a relief because that is what anyone watching wants for Garfield.  The Sea Wolf is based on the fine novel by Jack London. The adaptation shelves the second half of the book, which is okay because people had to get home after watching the film. A sequel would have been welcome because we could have watched Garfield and Ida Lupino battle the privations of life on a remote island.  But maybe the solitary hero was not in the nature of John Garfield.  He may have been a lonely man when he appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American activities but his heroism was always defined by his sympathy for the victims of the powerful.  In The Sea Wolf he is the rebellious George Leach who struggles against the cruel captain Wolf Larsen.  Garfield does what he does best.  He resists and protests. It is how he will be remembered.

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 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

NOW VOYAGER 

USA, !942

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The title of the movie was taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. He had his weaker moments but Walt must have turned over in his grave when he discovered the slop his existential and rebellious poetry had inspired. Now Voyager is preposterous tosh but it has become famous for the effect that the movie had on cinema audiences and for being well made and a box office success.   In the final scene Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes for him and Bette Davis to take a puff.  The romantic implication may be nonsense but the gesture is also a subtle emotional crescendo perfectly pitched.  Davis and Henreid have inspired more than one premature death from lung cancer.

Now Voyager is not the greatest film in which Bette Davis appeared but more than any this movie made her a star. Today there are moments when her acting style appears theatrical but Davis was a great performer. Davis was not beautiful but she had a pair of eyes that appeared to have the strength to search the cosmos. Those eyes could look through any man. Davis was one of those actors that proved glamour was not just about beauty. In Now Voyager she wears a low cut white dress and scarf that anticipates the costumes of Elvis in Vegas. As we do with the acting of James Cagney, we relish a performance of Davis for its own sake. Later we remember her achievements as more authentic than they appeared at the time. We realise they contain characterisation that touched genuine insights. This may sound overblown but watch Bette Davis blast a handgun into her victim in The Letter.  No tough guy ever did it better. Look at her also sway across a room in that white dress in Now Voyager. Many, including glamorous women, have worn mock-ups of the Elvis stage suit but Davis in that dress had prescience. She anticipated the drama and glamour that was subsequent rock and roll.

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In Now Voyager Davis plays a spinster dominated and damaged by an overbearing mother. She needs psychiatric treatment and is handed over to psychiatrist Claude Rains who lets her stay in the sanatorium he manages. After being cured of her ailment Davis boards a cruise around South America where she meets less than fulfilled Paul Henreid. His wife does not appear in the movie but we discover that she is a good match for the mother Davis has left back in Boston.   A couple of complications follow including nonsense about the emotionally damaged daughter of Paul Henreid and the transformation of Davis into a psychiatric care worker. The movie finishes with the idea that Davis and Henreid, two people who really love each other, will stay apart but sort of somehow share a life. As Davis says, ‘We may not have the moon but we have the stars.’ And there are always the fags, so there is no excuse for feeling low or needing to see a psychiatrist.

Mainstream Hollywood has not been great at dealing with psychiatric illness. Now Voyager has similarities to Marnie the compelling but flawed Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock added crime and sexual fetishism. Underneath her various aliases Marnie is a working class girl but, like Davis in Now Voyager, she enjoys the comfort of an upper-class home and the attention of a well-heeled and attractive male. The neurosis that afflicts Marnie is more serious than the psychological problems of Charlotte Vale the character played by Davis in Now Voyager. Those who do not understand the significance of the name should read Whitman or something.

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Marnie is a compulsive thief and averse to sex. The woman is not even tempted by Sean Connery, and, as he was James Bond back in Britain, there was not much hope for anyone else. The psychological illness of Charlotte Vale is defined as no more than timidity, excess weight, aversion to contact lenses and bad taste in clothes. Marnie is distraught, and Vale is inhibited. Money, though, for neither is a problem. Charlotte Vale buys great outfits, indulges in an expensive cruise and meets the urbane Henreid. Marnie has to relive a murder, discover that her mother was a prostitute and, most important of all, say no to all the banknotes in the family safe. Both women prevail and return to comfortable surroundings. They may not have the moon but they can settle for the stars.

Theresa May has stated that she is concerned about the treatment of mental health in the UK. It is possible that she would like the afflicted to have the breaks that came the way of Marnie and Charlotte Vale. Hollywood struggled to appreciate the reality of lives afflicted by mental ill health but then so did the audiences who watched its films. May is married to a hedge fund billionaire. She has an extravagant taste in clothes and perhaps she imagines a decent wardrobe as the cure for psychiatric disorder.  Today mental ill health is exaggerated by old age and the incidence of dementia. Its treatment is compromised by the constricted expenditure on both social and psychiatric care. While she was a Cabinet minister May nodded approval to cuts in the two budgets. Between 1977 and 2005 the expenditure on social care trebled. Since then it has fallen. This is not because we are feeling better. The rate of suicide is like the price of petrol. It varies but does not go down. Last year over 6000 people in the UK committed suicide.   Three quarters of these were men. Few were reacting to being disappointed at not meeting Paul Henreid.

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The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 75% of those who endure a psychiatric disorder are not receiving treatment. Most victims keep their mouths shut and suffer. The Foundation estimates that 20% of the British population has suffered from depression. Those figures and estimates produce huge numbers, around a gloomy 8 million souls. And three quarters of the men who have committed suicide have never reported a mental health problem. A common feeling amongst suicidal people is that they feel alone in the world. For some this condition is clinical, it is how their brains work. Others have swallowed too much Western individualism. Whatever its faults Now Voyager did not romanticise the single individual. Charlotte Vale only looked at the stars when she had a cigarette and Paul Henreid to light the match. This may be fantasy for females but escapism for males often means dreams of competitive triumph and a lonely sunset. Perhaps the sense of romance in men has always been skewed but whatever the initial dream the subsequent brainwashing of men by popular culture has been persistent and relentless.

All of which leads to Theresa May and the supposedly heartfelt messages from the doorstep at her front door. This far from stable person has acquired a neat trick. She mentions obvious problems because she knows that any pending budget adjustment or gesture previously negotiated by executives and administrators can be heralded as a heartfelt initiative.  A mental health task force has been established but funding for Mental Health Trusts has in the last three years fallen by just under 2%.   Mental ill health peaked in the UK in the last century during the depression, and right now poverty and homelessness is increasing and the economy is struggling. Not all people who have a psychiatric disorder live in poverty but poor mental health is the largest cause of disability, and the benefits of the disabled have been reduced.  For those who think increasing the number of suicides is a good idea this is almost a virtuous circle. Poverty, disability and mental ill heath are all mixed with the compound interest that accrues from a lopsided economic system.

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Social care and psychiatric care have separate budgets but the overlap is obvious, and the anticipated £2.6bn shortfall in social care funding by 2020 will not have positive implications for those who have mental ill health. Remembering the link between disability and psychiatric disorder it is sobering to read that the UN has criticised the British Government for its treatment of the disabled and mentally ill. The UN has claimed that what happens in Britain is a breach of human rights.

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David Davis is one of three ministers negotiating the terms of Brexit. Not that many years ago he spoke to a meeting of Conservative members during a Party Conference week. The meeting and his speech took place outside of the main Conference. He stated to an attentive audience that what united Conservatives was the belief that people should not be prevented from falling to whatever was the level that awaited them. His remarks produced enthusiastic cheers in his audience. It makes sense in a way. What is the point of having winners if there are not real losers? There would be no fun for the glamorous and successful if there were not people who could be seen to be suffering. The UN views the lives of human beings in different terms but so far the British Government has kept the UN at length. And, like Hollywood, Theresa May and her not really united followers do worry about the mental health of some people, those who are their friends and have the requisite wealth and glamour.   Bette Davis and Tippy Hedren can apply for sympathy. The rest have had their benefits cut and endure waiting times for treatment that exceed thirty days. There are a lot or people out there right now hoping for an appointment and feeling very alone and thinking thoughts that they should not, which, of course, is why Paul Henreid lit the cigarettes in the first place.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.